May 25, 2023
The Diversification and Ideological Malleability of Violent Far-Right Extremism
After more than two decades of countering Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (IS), the United States and its allies are struggling to formulate a coherent strategy to deal with violent far-right extremism – and for many international partners, to even define it. Some countries show discomfort with such classifications, owing to historical traditions of discussing ‘race’ as a concept, thereby making it difficult for them to accept the U.S. terminology of “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism” (REMVE). In other countries, far-right violence manifests in inter-ethnic, inter-communal, and majoritarian violence; some senior officials have even questioned whether many of the attacks perpetrated by these groups, though tactically similar to attacks perpetrated by AQ or IS, may be defined as “terrorism” – leaving open-ended the question of what constitutes “violent extremism.” A key part of the challenge is the diversification and ideological malleability of the groups, concepts, and motivations that underpin the broader movement. Within the violent far-right milieu are REMVE actors, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis, as well as anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists.
Over the past several years, amid the public health restrictions imposed over the COVID-19 pandemic and the ubiquity of mis- and disinformation, the far-right has expanded its ideological tent to include other elements on its periphery, such as eco-Fascists, Christian nationalists, QAnon-type conspiracy theorists, so-called Incels (involuntarily celibate), technophobes and neo-Luddites, and a range of other individuals and sub-cultures voicing a panoply of grievances. In addition, issues like immigration, gun control, vaccines, abortion, gender, and sexuality also resonate deeply with different groups and to different degrees. The Base, the Atomwaffen Division, the Proud Boys, and several prominent militia groups such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters often garner the most media headlines. However, the broader far-right ecosystem may be the most enduring legacy of this ideology, facilitating do-it-yourself radicalization and a steady stream of lone actors that have gone on to commit attacks in Pittsburgh, El Paso, Christchurch, and elsewhere. Moreover, much of what was previously considered “extreme” has moved into mainstream social and political discourse, and is often expressed by senior politicians, making it hard to draw a line between the rhetoric of violent far-right groups and public figures.
These ideological motivators are not always sharply defined, discrete, or exclusive categories. As FBI Director Christopher Wray has observed, these groups and individuals “don’t fit into nice, neat ideological buckets.” On the contrary, there is often considerable overlap, with anti-Semitism and misogyny frequently serving as the connective sinew between these networks. Another essential concept for the far-right is accelerationism, a violent extremist strategy aimed at triggering the downfall of current systems of government and society through repeated acts of extreme violence. Accelerationism is a popular tactical doctrine with the strategic aim of provoking societal crisis through demonstrations of extreme acts of violence. Like other violent (and legitimate) actors, accelerationists connect online, commiserating on fringe social media platforms to organize, spread propaganda, and recruit new members. To subject matter experts studying the movement, it almost appears trendy, a modern-day method not just of opting out of the system, but destroying it altogether.
As they grapple with the changing nature of the violent far-right extremist landscape, those involved in studying, analyzing, and countering it have been forced to devise new terminology to describe current trends more accurately. This has been particularly necessary when it comes to the issue of individuals who borrow facets of various – sometimes contradictory – ideologies, fusing together cherry-picked grievances as a blueprint or roadmap for what leads them to engage in violence. This concept has been called ideological convergence, compositive violent extremism, and more colloquially, ‘salad bar’ terrorism, reflecting the nature of picking and choosing which ideological drivers are the most pertinent to a particular worldview. The blurring of lines within this movement drastically complicates the job of law enforcement, the intelligence community, and others tasked with countering the threat posed by violent extremism. In many cases, authorities are left trying to piece together an attacker or plotter’s motive through their online footprints, which do not always point to a clear, coherent, or compelling grievance, but rather a hodgepodge of racism, distrust of authorities and institutions, and/or deep nihilism. Groups like Order of the Nine Angles, described as a transnational esoteric Satanist movement, are also becoming more prominent and further obfuscating the violent far-right extremist landscape.
The diversification of violent far-right extremism is occurring on multiple levels—geographically, tactically (especially regarding target selection), and organizationally. Geographically, REMVE is a growing challenge not just in the West, or the Global North, but also in the Global South, including in countries that might not typically come to mind when thinking about this particular threat. Muslims have been targeted for violence in India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, while the U.S. Department of State has warned of racially motivated violent extremist narratives gaining traction in Brazil and South Africa. Tactically, far-right terrorists have targeted a range of groups, including racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, government officials and institutions, and those of various religious faiths, especially Muslims and Jewish people. Violent far-right extremists, especially those motivated by accelerationism, have also stepped up attacks against critical infrastructure.
Organizational structures are becoming less relevant than at any time in recent memory, ushering in a phase labeled post-organizational violent extremism and terrorism, which presents a unique threat. With no formal group, there is no physical headquarters to surveil and no organization to infiltrate. While Islamic State presented a massive challenge through its control of territory and ability to launch external attack operations, it also offered an identifiable and somewhat fixed target for the United States and its allies to strike. However, post-organizational perpetrators often lack the logistics and support networks of traditional terrorist organizations and thus, are less capable of obtaining consistent access to resources and less likely to conduct enduring campaigns of violence. Still, since the goal of terrorism is largely psychological, even a lone actor with access to sophisticated weaponry can wreak havoc on a mass scale.